Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities by Alexandra Lange
Princeton Architectural Press, 2012
Paperback, 160 pages
A couple weeks ago the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects assembled five architecture critics from prominent publications to investigate the role of architectural criticism today. Justin Davidson (New York Magazine), Paul Goldberger (The New Yorker), Cathleen McGuigan (Architectural Record), James Russell (Bloomberg), and moderator Julie Iovine (The Architect's Newspaper) spoke for nearly two hours to a sold-out Center for Architecture audience. Absent of course was Michael Kimmelman, the current architecture critic for the New York Times. As these edited highlights at archpaper.com attest (I was not able to attend the panel discussion), that absence did not mean Kimmelman's few pieces for the paper since taking over Nicolai Ouroussoff's position did not impact the proceedings. He has reoriented the Times's architectural criticism away from buildings as standalone objects by well-known architects and towards buildings as parts of the urban fabric that have impact on people's lives. The panelists basically concurred that starchitects had their moment, but now "a higher degree of broader urbanistic consciousness [exists] today," according to Goldberger.
That evening's discussion also makes it clear that the need for architectural criticism is strong. So many people have forecast the end of architectural criticism (the late critic Martin Pawley's collected writings are even titled The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism), but the opposite might actually be the case, especially if we take the broader context enabled by the internet into account, not just newspapers and magazines that have cut the position of architecture critic to single-digit numbers in the United States. Cities are more popular -- and populous -- than ever, and therefore it's extremely important to have educated and informed observation and criticism about buildings, developments, landscapes, and urban plans. This book by critic Alexandra Lange, spurred by her teaching in the D-Crit program at the School of Visual Arts, is a well-timed call for just that, aiming to turn even those with rudimentary architectural knowledge, but with a strong interest in architecture and the built environment, into architecture critics.
Lange tackles this goal in six chapters that each present a piece of architectural writing by a well-known writer (Lewis Mumford, Herbert Muschamp, Michael Sorkin, Charles Moore, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jane Jacobs), followed by Lange's discussion of it. Basically following her D-Crit structure of learning from others, the six are further split in half, in that the first three address buildings and the remainder target cities. But Lange uses each chapter and its critic to talk about broader pertinent issues, such as preservation, landscapes, and ground-up criticism. So, for example, her discussion around Michael Sorkin's "Save the Whitney" essay from 1985 looks at his theme, approach, and organization -- the tripartite template of criticism that Lange explicates and reiterates throughout the book -- but it also addresses historic preservation, activist criticism, and the role critics play in influencing what buildings are saved or demolished. Within the discussion of this and the other chapters Lange inserts more snippets from other essays by critics like Ada Louise Huxtable, Paul Goldberger, Justin Davidson, Karrie Jacobs, and Mike Davis. All tolled the book is a fount of admirable architectural criticism beyond the six primary-source essays that hold the book together.
To gain the most from Lange's book, to ideally evolve into a skilled critic, the reader is given a checklist at the end of each chapter with questions to consider. These checklists do a few things: They create some bullet points, which are helpful for many people in structuring information; they help the reader determine what to observe and research in regards to their own subject, be it a building, landscape, or neighborhood; and they let the reader insert his or her own voice and further absorb the ideas via writing. Because it's not enough to read, a critic must write. While I've done my fair share of writing, and have sometimes considered myself a wannabee critic, I've pursued this interest in a fairly haphazard manner on this and other web pages. I'll admit frequent writing helps to flesh out ideas and develop a voice, but it's necessary to step back and take the time and effort to look at the structure of criticism. For me this book will be helpful in these broader strokes, aided by the organization of the book into its six digestible chapters. For others the book will be helpful in different ways. Whatever the case, Lange has crafted a book that is to the benefit of anybody interested in architectural criticism.